Our favorite place in Virginia’s Blue Ridge for planes, trains, and automobiles is the Virginia Museum of Transportation in downtown Roanoke. The museum is overflowing with history and is a sensory experience for those who can’t resist touching or climbing aboard. Hands down, it’s a winner with kids!
It All Began in 1963…
The Roanoke Transportation Museum used to be located in an old Norfolk & Western freight depot in Wasena Park in Roanoke. The collection was not as large as today’s, but was quite important. It included the iconic Norfolk & Western J Class Locomotive #611 and the U.S. Army Jupiter rocket, as well as several historic horse-drawn carriages. The catastrophic flood of 1985 nearly swept it all away, but in short order, the prized possessions and museum was relocated to its current home in the N&W Freight Station in downtown Roanoke to reopen as the Virginia Museum of Transportation in April 1986.
In 1983, the Virginia Museum of Transportation was named the “Official Transportation Museum of Virginia” by the Virginia General Assembly.
When you think of busy transportation hubs in Virginia, it’s a good chance Roanoke may not be at the top of your list. When that idea is specific to trains, however, it should be. A multi-locality area stretching from Salem to Covington was named “Virginia’s Rail Heritage Region” in 2010 by the Virginia General Assembly. The resolution included key points for naming the region, including an illustrious claim to fame for Roanoke, “…where the most modern steam locomotives in the world were designed and built.”
The home of the Virginia Museum of Transportation is the Norfolk & Western Railway Freight Station, which closed for freight business in 1964. In 2012, the complex was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2017, the Norfolk & Western J Class 611 was recognized by the Virginia General Assembly and named the “Official Steam Locomotive of the State of Virginia” through an effort led by Delegate Chris Head. This particular locomotive is prized because it’s the last J Class in existence, and it was the most powerful passenger train of its day. Roanoke is its home; it was built at the Roanoke East End Shops in 1950.
The aforementioned N&W J Class 611 comes and goes on passenger excursions, but approximately 2,500 other artifacts remain. More than 50 “rolling stock” are at home at VMT, making it Virginia’s largest collection of locomotives and rail cars, and the largest collection of diesel locomotives in the South.
Some of the more notable pieces of the collection are the “most modern steam locomotives ever built,” the J Class 611 and the A Class 1218. There were 14 611's and 43 1218's built. Those found at the VMT are the only ones left in existence.
Currently under restoration, you’ll want to make every attempt to see the GE GG-1 #4919 electric locomotive. It was designed by Raymond Loewy, who designed such things as the 1947 Studebaker Starlight Coupe, Lucky Strike cigarette packaging, the Coca-Cola bottle, the Apollo spacecraft, and the former passenger rail station in downtown Roanoke that now serves as the Virginia’s Blue Ridge Visitor Information Center.
Other Can’t-Miss Pieces:
- The “Lost Engines of Roanoke”
- The “Redbird”
- The “Bluebird”
- The “1776”
- The Virginian GE EL-C 135 electric locomotive
- The fancy 1922 N&W Class CF 518302 caboose with its refrigerator, radio, and toilet
- The 1945 DC Transit Company Street Car #1470
- The 1961 Chevrolet Corvair 500
- The 1981 Delorean DMC-12
- The 1913 Ford Model T Touring
- The 1972 Volkswagen Super Beetle
- The 1921-1923 Earl Model 40
- The Ford Model B Pickup
- … and a whole host of air technology to see in the Wings Over Virginia Aviation Collection!
This special exhibition is available through January 24, 2019. You’ll want to see icons of the silver screen, like ECTO-1 from Ghostbusters (the original), the General Lee from Dukes of Hazzard (the movie), The Black Beauty from The Green Hornet, Dom’s beautiful 1970 Dodge Charger in Fast and Furious 4 and Fast Five (actually driven by Vin Diesel and Paul Walker), and others.
You’re going to want to spend time perusing the special areas of VMT, like Our NASCAR Roots; Main Street; the Maritime Gallery featuring vessels named Roanoke; “From Cotton to Silk,” an exhibit highlighting African-American railroad workers; and many more.
The Virginia Museum of Transportation is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. Be prepared - whatever the weather - as some of the exhibits are outdoors.
Following your visit to the museum, enjoy some great food and drinks a short walk away at Beamer's 25, Big Lick Brewing Company, Tuco's Taqueria, and Blue 5. Up the hill from the museum on Campbell Avenue, there's also fun stuff to see at Downshift Hand Crafted Bikes & Brews, Treehouse Collaborative, and the Alexander/Heath Contemporary art gallery.
Check out the Virginia Museum of Transportation website to begin planning your next visit.